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This op-ed originally appeared March 11, 2021 in TAPintoNewark.

It’s been one year since the World Health Organization officially declared a pandemic.

It is a year that many of us will not want to remember. A year of unbearable heartbreak, pain and sadness. A year in which over two and a half global deaths were attributed to the virus. A year in which half a million Americans died from the infection. A year in which more than 23,000 New Jerseyans died from COVID-19-related complications.

With the advent of the vaccines, there is a light at the end of the tunnel. However the number of deaths continue to increase, which has resulted in a parallel pandemic of grief.
As we mark this one-year anniversary, we need to make a concerted effort to pause, reflect and mourn the unfathomable losses we have sustained because I believe that this pandemic of grief will endure far beyond the pandemic.

It is important to note that pretty much every individual affected by any single death for any cause has also been impacted by COVID-19. It has forced many of us to dissociate from the necessary social networks that can empower us with the tools to bear the grief and overcome the trauma.

The steps necessary to protect oneself from the virus results in an interruption in the processes that lead to healing. It results in a delayed acceptance of the brutal reality and meaning of a loss, which causes a profound intensification and persistence of the feelings of grief.

New research has demonstrated that over half of health and social care workers are suffering psychiatric disorders as a result of the pandemic. A study carried out in May and June last year found that nearly six in ten had symptoms, including 22% who met the threshold for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) stemming from loss of lives, fears of catching the virus, infecting loved ones and stresses driven by a lack of personal protective equipment.

One study showed that for each COVID-19 death, nine people experienced bereavement associated with mental and physical ailments. The bereavement, which stems from non-COVID-19 deaths alike during this period, was significantly impacted negatively by socially distanced rituals of mourning. These rituals have always been vital to healing the trauma of loss because they allow an outlet to acknowledge and address the pain.
The most bitter paradox of the pandemic is that at a crucial time in which mourners yearn for companionship and solidarity, the virus’ grave infectivity has compelled mourning individuals into isolation.

The problem has been further magnified by an ongoing deficiency of mental health services driven by financial constraints, a lack of specialists who provide the treatment needs for people of color, and minimal resources in rural areas. The result is a perfect storm of post-pandemic grief that will put a strain on mental health services.

Our faith leaders are also not ready for this era of psychological trauma that stems from this immeasurable loss of life. Moreover, there is a vexing absence of clinical studies analyzing the effects of COVID-19 on grieving. The fact is, more time is needed to actually measure the long-term mental and physical effects of COVID-19. It will likely take many decades before the full burden of this pandemic can be gauged.

Throughout this past year, we were reminded everyday of what we cannot do. Instead, we must concentrate and direct our energy to what we can do to help each other in the healing process.

We must stay connected through tools like FaceTime and Zoom with friends and family. We must take a socially distanced walk or sit outside with a friend. We must ask friends and family to share stories or pictures of the person they lost. We can assemble a book or digital slide show of memories. We can take part in an activity, such as planting a tree or preparing a favorite meal, that has significance to you and the loved one who died.
We must not be afraid to ask for help from others, including grief counselors, spiritual leaders or just trusted friends.

During this past year, our lives have been turned upside down by this pandemic. The mental and emotional health impact on our communities has been drastic. These times call for sincere empathy and ingenuity to help one another.

You do not need a medical degree to do this. We can all reach out and help others who may be suffering. Dealing with mental and spiritual health is a collective responsibility.
Maybe that is the biggest lesson we learn on this one-year anniversary. Maybe that is how humanity learns to cope with grief during this pandemic—by reassuring, comforting and being kind to one another.

By being human and building human connections despite physical distancing, we can potentially remold this society into one in which empathy is embraced as a way of life and not just a viral hashtag.

Dr. Hamid Shaaban is the chief medical officer of Saint Michael’s Medical Center.